SPECIAL REPORT: Former Moorhead, UND star Lee signs a two-year contract with Tampa Bay

Former Moorhead and University of North Dakota star defenseman Brian Lee has signed a two-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Lee, according to the Lightning’s Twitter account, was a restricted free agent. The former Mr. Hockey winner and first-round pick was sent to Tampa Bay during the NHL’s Trade Deadline in February by the Ottawa Senators, the team which drafted him back in 2005 with the ninth overall pick.

After the trade, Lee played in 20 games with the Lightning scoring eight points. In all, he played in 55 games between his time with Ottawa and Tampa Bay – two more than his previous career high of games in a season. His 16 points were also the most in his career.

Lee will return to a Tampa Bay franchise looking to rebound from a rocky season finishing 38-36-8 where it missed out on the playoffs, a year after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals and losing to eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Boston Bruins.

Prior to his NHL career, Lee was a star at Moorhead scoring 48 points as a junior and 38 as a senior en route to winning Mr. Hockey. He had a 12-game stint with the Lincoln Stars before playing two years at the University of North Dakota where he scored 53 points in 82 games before leaving school to pursue his pro career.

 

New World Order…

Moorhead athletic director Don Hulbert said this morning assistant Pete Cullen has been recommended to become the school’s boys hockey coach for next season.

Cullen will go before the school board later this evening and it will be determined if he will take over the program. Hulbert said should Cullen be selected, he’d coach the team for one season before the position would open up again.

“It will be interim for one year in light of the fact that because we really didn’t have a lot of lead time,” Hulbert said. “Primarily, we want to attract the kind of coach that this program deserves and this school district deserves and we’ve had that stance in every activity and we felt this was a viable move.”

Moorhead has been without a hockey coach since longtime coach Dave Morinville retired last month so he could spend time with his wife and three adult daughters.

Under Morinville, Moorhead continued its place as one of the state’s respected programs by constantly playing tougher teams from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and finding a way to reach the state tournament.

The Spuds reached state this season and finished fourth. As a whole, the program has made 14 state tournament appearances and have finished second, a state record seven times. Moorhead has never won a state title.

Cullen, whose uncle, Terry Cullen, coached the program before Morinville, just completed his first year with the team. His cousins are also Minnesota Wild center Matt Cullen and forward Mark Cullen, who plays in the Florida Panthers’ system.

It would be Cullen’s first high school coaching position. He spent seven years as a youth hockey coach in Moorhead, Hulbert said.

Hulbert, who will also be leaving Moorhead at the end of the school year, said he has a “great interest” in seeing Cullen succeed.

“He’s the kind of guy kids really connect with and it says a lot about Pete,” Hulbert said. “He’s the kind of guy that commands respect and shows respect and he’s very congenial and is an open person in terms of interacting with the players.”

If Cullen were to get the position he would be getting a chance to see what he could do as Moorhead loses 12 seniors including goaltender Michael Bitzer, who was drafted by the Lincoln Stars last week.

Among the players returning would be playmaking centerman Thomas Carey along with forward Aaron Herdt, who was also taken in last week’s USHL Entry Draft by the Fargo Force.

Cullen’s top task would be to cultivate Moorhead’s inexperience and turn them into a Section 8AA contender, a section that has been dominated by Moorhead and Roseau for more than a decade.

Posse…

Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis said yesterday the team had three priorities heading into the USHL Entry Draft and goaltending was the No. 1.

The team selected Fresno (NAHL) goaltender Tomas Sholl (Bowling Green) with its first pick in the second round. Davis said Sholl was the closest thing available to outgoing goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), who was named the USHL’s Co-Goaltender of the Year this week.

Davis said the team’s remaining priorities were getting more defensemen and adding toughness, which became important following the Force’s second-round elimination against the extremely physical Lincoln Stars.

Sixteen players are set to return to the Force next season which could put the team in position to contend next season. Here’s a look at the players the Force drafted and as Davis said, there are some who have a strong chance of making next year’s roster.
Tomas Sholl, goaltender (Bowling Green): We’ve seen him in the NAHL and he was a pretty skilled goaltender there. Our tryout camps are going to tell us a lot about our goaltending situation and all of our players. As far as goalies go, he can stop the puck and we have confidence in him. If we decide to go with him and he’s our guy, that’s what its going to be.

Matt Pohlkamp, forward (Bowling Green): He was a guy that we saw last year in the Elite League and in Minnesota high school hockey who we thought was pretty good. A kid that grew year after year as a hockey player and we just kept watching him closely. Came and skated with us at the end of the high school year. He’s committed to Bowling Green and we have a good relationship with those guys there. A little bit of what we are losing in Jonny Brodzinski (St. Cloud State), we are getting back in Matt Pohlkamp. He and Tomas were the two guys we wanted to get and we did.

Charles Hemstrom, defenseman: I have known Charlie for a ling tome. I coached him the past back in Detroit and when you start looking down the list of our needs for a hockey team for next year, Charlie has junior experience. He’s a hard-nosed defenseman and brings a lot of toughness with him and that was something we were lacking looking at roster for next season. I watched Charlie closely this year in the NAHL. Watched him in NAHL Tournament and we decided around that time we’d take him and we did. Big body, hard-nosed, hitter, likes to be a hitter. Defensively sound and not a power play guy but could because of his good shot. Just a solid, solid puck-moving defenseman.

Jared Dedenbach, forward: Jared is another Detroit kid I’ve known a long time and it’s fun seeing these kids when you’ve known them for so long. You’ve seen where they’ve come from and where they are at now. He played in Chicago for the Fury with Dave Gust two years ago. He has good size, skates real well, very very physical and guy we brought in for toughness. He has some good skill and shoots the puck really well. One of few guys who could step in from midget hockey to our league. That’s a big step coming from Triple A to our league. We feel Jared fits the role. Not asking him to come in and score 50 goals but we want him to score, finish checks and he should be tough to play against. We feel he can do that. I don’t know what his potential can be from here.

Teemu Kivihalme, defenseman: He’s a guy we’ve had our eyes on. We had them on him last year for the Futures Draft and kept him on our list. (Force assistant Byron Pool) loves him and was always talking about him this year. We decided that we wanted him to be part of our roster. I don’t think he is going to leave and make our team next year. We took him and when you take guys in the draft and three or four teams are mad at you, that’s when we know we made a good move. He’s still growing. He got a lot bigger this season and growing form a young boy into a man and now he’s just a puck mover. You don’t notice him because he does not make mistakes. By the time he is ready for us, he could have more to him. I can see him getting a Division I scholarship soon.

Mikey Eyssimont, forward : Another guy we were looking to fill on our affiliates list. We had open spot with tendering (defenseman Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan)) and we had an open ’96 (birthyear) spot. He was on our list to draft and saw him two years ago for the first time and was a high-end skilled centerman and was injured for most of this season. As Futures Draft went by, we didn’t see anyone take him. I saw him this spring in a showcase tournament and was one the best players there. His skill translated from last year to this year and he got better and we knew at that point we needed to get him on our affiliate list.

Chase Priske, defenseman (Qunnipiac): He was another guy we had on our list for the Futures Draft. We cannot take everyone and we decided we could get him later and that’s what we did. We have a feeling that (Futures Draft picks) Mason Morelli and Michael Booth will make our club and there will be another open spot. We’ll move him over to the affiliates list. He’s from Florida originally and played at a new prep school program. He’s already committed to a school and it is time for him to grow and getting bigger and stronger.

Aaron Herdt, forward: Aaron is a local talent. He’s been out to skate with us on some practices and was a kid we wanted to keep our hands on. My feeling is his potential is just unknown. Has a really good skillset right now and we didn’t want to miss out on him and was excited just when we would call him and tell him to come to practice. We have a good relationship with Moorhead and felt we had to have him in our program.

On Herdt, a Moorhead native, possibly being the first Fargo-Moorhead kid to ever play for the Force: Yeah, that’s a big thing. I know we get criticized on why we don’t take more local kids and (critics) don’t understand what else is out there. He has the potential to make our hockey team one day. We’re excited to sit back and watch what he is going to do. There’s no real set idea on how good he can be. He’s a rink rat.  His grandpa (Moorhead Youth Arena manager Dennis Bushy) runs the rink over there and they gave him a key to the place.

Hudson Friesen, defenseman: That’s one John kind of threw in there. He coached against him. We had him on the board and leading up to the draft, when we started calling different college guys and different people, his name kept coming up form different guys. Guys with no vested interest other than they saw him play. First step is to get him to camp. He was excited when he called him.

Perry Holcombe, defenseman: Perry is another guy we’ve been on for a few years. He’scComing from a remote area (Georgia) where there is not a lot of hockey. That’s why he got out. He moved on to prep school and is just a guy that always made the national camps and had opporuntity to skate with us and practice and did pretty good. Sometimes kids come in a little bit nervous and he fit right in. He felt like was one of the guys when he was here. We were surprised he was still around at that point. When you look at needs we got a goalie and Pohlkamp and some guys we figured could get.

CJ Garcia, defenseman: CJ, I guess, the one player on the Don MIlls team I was looking at and as a result we also ended up drafting (Futures pick Sal Filice). As we moved on to this draft, he was still a guy we had interest in. They (Garcia and his family) are bartering back and forth between the NCAA and OHL route and that’s something a lot of Candaian kids do. CJ was drafted pretty high in that league. He was drafted by Barrie. We worked diligently talking with his adviser and figured we don’t have a 100 percent “No.” The way the USA Hockey and Hockey Canaida rules are, he could not come here next year and figured, let’s draft him and easiest way to convice him that we want him here is to draft him. He’s a high-end player whatever route he goes.

-Victor Bjorkung, defenseman (Maine): He’s a guy we really didn’t know about. Leading up to the draft we were making our phone calls to talk to people and his name came up. He’s a Maine commit and another player kind of similar to CJ with the different options. He has options in Europe to play pro hockey. He also wants a college education and got the scholarship to Maine and is on the fence on what to do. They are brought up one way over there and don’t know about the USHL. Its an education process and we want to show him that we like him. We want to get him over here and go from there. Unsure where he’s going to go and it is not a 100 percent “No” on coming over here. Now we’ve drafted him and kind of go from there. The later rounds is about getting flyer picks. You are sure they can play but not sure of the direction they are going. High-end skilled, power play type guy. Maine was excited we took him and they feel it would help bring him over here. He’s another guy who when we took him, a lot of teams said, “Whoa. That was a good one.”

Brett Boehm, forward (Minnesota-Duluth): We knew a litlte bit about him before he even committed form Duluth. It’s good to get a kid like this in our league. Not just to Fargo but for our league as a whole. That being kids deciding to go to the college route or going to play for soon-to-be former WCHA teams. They are going to play in our area in college so why don’t they play in our league and play for Fargo?

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star…

Looks like area hockey fans could see Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer wearing black and blue after all.

It’ll just be the black and blue of the Lincoln Stars. Bitzer was taken by the Stars in the second round of the USHL Entry Draft this afternoon.

The Stars’ drafting Bitzer means the Moorhead star said he will spend next season with the Stars. Bitzer signed a tender with the now-Brookings, S.D. team in the NAHL and played part of the season with the team.

But by getting drafted by Lincoln, it very well means Bitzer could come in and start in the USHL, something not often guaranteed for first-year goaltenders.

Lincoln has been one of the USHL’s perennial powers and finished first in the Western Conference during the regular season. The Stars beat the Force in a best-of-five series en route to making the conference finals, where they lost to Waterloo.

Bitzer’s future has received quite a bit of interest after he had one of the more stellar seasons of any high school player in the United States.

The 5-10 Bitzer went 22-8 with a 1.80 goals against average, a .933 save percentage, seven shutouts and 750 saves.

He was practically flawless in Moorhead’s state tournament run, leading the team to an upset over title-favorite Eagan in a 4-0 win where he stopped more than 30 shots.

Bitzer allowed Moorhead to nearly hang on in the next round before losing to Hill-Murray in overtime, en route to finishing fourth the following day.

The tournament was a coming-out party for Bitzer who in 24 hours won a first-team all tournament selection nod, the Class 2A Herb Brooks Award, the Frank Brimsek Award for Minnesota’s best senior goaltender and was named an Associated Press first-team selection.

Should he go the USHL route, he has a chance to emulate what has been some pretty lofty and successful company.

The Force drafted the 2010 Brimsek Award winner in Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), who this season set several franchise records and was named the USHL’s Co-Goaltender of the Year on Tuesday.

Omaha traded for the 2011 winner in Alex Lyon (Yale), who helped the Lancers finish second in the West during the regular season.

Summer In The Studio…

USHL teams have been talking with Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer leading up to this month’s Entry Draft.

Bitzer said as of a week ago, the Fargo Force isn’t one of those teams.

“I have not talked to Fargo,” Bitzer said. “But I have talked to teams from both conferences.”

Bitzer, 18, is expected to be taken in next Tuesday’s Entry Draft, which serves as a way for teams to rebuild their rosters for the upcoming season. Goaltenders are always a popular commodity and Bitzer has worked himself into be one who could get drafted.

He took Moorhead to the Minnesota state hockey tournament in March and in the process was one of the event’s stars. He was a first-team all-state selection and a first-team all-tournament selection after leading Moorhead to a fourth place finish.

Bitzer was also named the Herb Brooks Award Winner for Class 2A and won the Frank Brimsek Award for Minnesota’s best senior goaltender. Having already signed a tender with Alexandria (NAHL), he got a chance to play juniors going 3-0 with a 2.00 goals against average.

“It was a great time,” Bitzer said of his NAHL experience. “Bunch of great guys and they made it easy to come in and play right away. I went down there to get a couple starts but I got to play right away.”

The three wins surely helped Bitzer improve his stock and has possibly added to what could be a murky future.

Alexandria announced weeks ago it was moving to Brookings, S.D. for next season. Then on a week ago, coach Doc DelCastillo said he was taking the head coach position at Hamline University.

Bitzer said DelCastillo texted the entire team thanking them for what turned out to be his last season.

“As for the whole thing, it is crazy and it puts another loop in things,” Bitzer said. “He gave me a chance to play right a way and gave me an opportunity.”

Bitzer said he’s going to use the next few months to think about his future and come up with a plan which works best for him.

He’s said on numerous occasions his goal is to play college hockey and both the NAHL and USHL provide that avenue. The NAHL told The Forum last week 66 percent of its players committed to a college, whether it be Division I or Division III.

The USHL said that two years ago all but six of its 300 players – or 98 percent – had a commitment to a Division I school.

Eleven of the 15 teams eligible for the USHL Entry Draft are losing their starting goaltenders to college next season creating a need for someone who could come in and play either right a way or to a successor in waiting.

The last two Brimsek Award winners – Omaha’s Alex Lyon (Yale) and Fargo’s Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) – were drafted into the USHL. Lyon became a starter in his first season while Gothberg was a backup his first season and in his second year, emerged as a strong favorite for the USHL’s Goaltender of the Year.

The Force are one of those teams with goaltender as Gothberg heads college next season while this year’s No. 2, Reed Peters, is set to be next year’s starting goaltender.

Having two goaltenders in their system, there may or may not be a need for the Force to bring in Bitzer.

Either way, he’ll end up somewhere. Whether its Brookings or the USHL remains to be seen.

“Whatever happens in the next month or so, happens,” Bitzer said. “We can only wait and see what opportunities come my way. We’ll make a decision from there.”

One Week…

If it feels like its been one interesting week in Sioux Falls, you might be on to something.

The Stampede fired head coach Kevin Hartzell after six seasons on Monday and on Friday the team hired former North Dakota assistant Cary Eades and he will be introduced at a press conference at 3 p.m.

Eades tweeted around 10:45 a.m. he would be taking over the position.

What Eades will inherit will be one of the more promising yet intriguing teams in the United States Hockey League next season.

The Stampede finished last in both the USHL and the Western Conference in a year marred by a lack of offensive production. Sioux Falls struggled offensively scoring a league-worst 127 goals while its defense and goaltending gave up 215 goals after establishing itself as one of the better defenses earlier in the year.

Sioux Falls could return up to 16 players including goaltender Charlie Lindgren and Todd Skirving, who finished fourth on the team in points with 25 last season. That group also includes former Moorhead forward Eric Brenk.

The team also made six selections in last week’s USHL Futures Draft taking St. Mary’s Prep forward Cody Milan with the ninth overall selection. One of the team’s selections was Fargo South defenseman Andrew Blumer, who said last week he will stay in high school for one more season before making the jump to the USHL.

Eades, before being released by North Dakota, served as an assistant for 15 years and was promoted to associate head coach back in the 2006-07 season. Before coming to North Dakota, he spent 11 seasons as the head coach of Warroad (MN-HS) and won three MInnesota state championships.

This will be Eades’ second stint in the USHL as he was the former head coach/general manager of the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the early 1990s. Eades went 86-46-7 in his time in Dubuque.

Dawned On Me…

Coming back to Moorhead and leading a program which gave him his start would be a dream for Ryan Kraft.

But that’s all it is and will be. A dream.

Kraft said Tuesday afternoon he looked into applying for the opening but has opted against it. Moorhead has been without a boys hockey coach for the last week after longtime coach Dave Morinville resigned after a 15-year tenure.

Kraft said he notified Moorhead activities director Don Hulbert he would not be taking the job.

“I am interested but at the same time, I have a wife and three small children,” Kraft said by phone. “You are not just talking about moving a person. You are talking about selling a house, buying a new house, a complete lifestyle change. You are talking about a whole realm of issues that have been talked about by me and my wife. At this time, we are not ready to make that change.”

Kraft, 36, played at Moorhead and as a senior enjoyed one of the best individual seasons in school history scoring 84 points (44 goals, 40 assists) in 27 games during the 1993-94 season.

He went on to have a four-year career at the University of Minnesota and after his freshman year was drafted by the San Jose Sharks. Kraft had a seven-game stint with the Sharks that was sandwiched by stints in the ECHL and AHL. He played the last few seasons of his pro career in Germany before retiring in 2010.

Kraft now lives in Lakeville, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb, where he is a personal skating coach and an assistant at Lakeville North. He had been an assistant with the Hastings girls hockey program during the 2010-11 season.

“We feel we have all the elements in place to put together a good program,” he said about Lakeville North. “Not just one that wins games but one that sends players to the next level.”

Kraft said he received quite a few phone calls last week after Morinville announced he would be resigning.

Taking over the Moorhead program was something he had to think about.

Aside from it being his alma mater, Moorhead has gone on to establish itself as one of Minnesota’s prominent yet at times, most hard-luck program having finished second a record seven times without a state title victory at the Minnesota state tournament.

Moorhead reached the state tournament this season where it upset title front-runner Eagan and finished fourth.

“I played for Terry Cullen and I loved playing for him,” Kraft said. “If it were me hiring, he’d be the prototypical guy and have him do the thing all over again. I think the program needs a kick in the butt. Not to say Dave Morinville didn’t do a great job. He did a tremendous job but there is always time for a change and its type of change the Moorhead program needs.”

He added the next head coach should be a former alum and/or someone who is willing to put the time into making Moorhead a winner.

“I know they are looking for a teacher/coach combination and filling a teaching position is something I know they are considering,” Kraft said. “If it were me and I had a list of 10 candidates, I’d pick the best one to do the job for hockey. There are so many great teachers at Moorhead, they don’t need another one. But they need someone to run a great program because hockey is what puts Moorhead on the map.”

Man Machine…

Most kids who were taken in Tuesday’s USHL Futures Draft were probably huddled around a computer with family watching to see where they’d be taken.

Some were probably doing whatever they normally do on a Tuesday. Andrew Blumer falls under that category as he was playing in a high school baseball doubleheader when he was drafted by the Sioux Falls Stampede in the sixth round.

“I asked my dad during the game for a Gatorade and he showed me the news of where I had been drafted,” Blumer said. “Being drafted was great. I was dehydrated so getting the Gatorade was great too but the getting drafted was huge and exciting.”

“Huge” is something that could easily describe the 6-5 Blumer, who was a defense at Fargo South this season. “Exciting”, in the case of Sioux Falls, is something the team hopes Blumer can be when he arrives to the team.

Blumer was on the radar earlier in the year of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. It is a program which fosters what is considered to be the nation’s best talent and trains them for two years in the hopes of being America’s future NHL stars.

He didn’t receive an invite from the NTDP and if he would have, he’d have been the third player in North Dakota’s history to play for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based program.

Even still, Blumer is happy with knowing he has a chance to play and develop in the USHL, which two years ago sent 98 percent of its players to Division I colleges.

“College hockey is a great accomplishment,” Blumer said. “I’ve always wanted to play at North Dakota and it has always been my dream. If baseball takes me there or hockey takes me there, it is a dream I want to pursue.”

Blumer, who is a pitcher and a shortstop, said he’ll play next season – his junior year – for the South/Shanley co-op and then look at making the jump the USHL.

He wants to play one more year so he can have a chance to work on a few items such as his speed before heading into the USHL where he will see undoubtedly faster, stronger and better talent.

Blumer’s approach is similar to many drafted in the Futures Draft. Nearly half of last year’s first-round picks didn’t play in the USHL as the Futures Draft is seen as a chance for younger players to develop and then in a year or two, advance to the league.

“I am a big guy and cannot move that fast and the game was faster this year than it was in bantams,” said Blumer, who has a year of high school hockey under his belt. “At first, it was really fast jumping from bantams to high school but I thought I got used to it. I am not 100 percent of the way there and I want to come back next year and improve getting faster and quicker and hopefully slowing down the game and making better decisions.”

When the time comes for Blumer to arrive in Sioux Falls, he could be walking into what could be a good situation.

Sioux Falls was the youngest and least experienced team in the league. They finished with the worst record in the Western Conference but appear to have the pieces in place to be better next season.

The Stampede, which also have former Moorhead forward Eric Brenk, also had a strong Futures Draft and in two years could be a realistic threat to win the Western Conference.

“I didn’t think I was going to get drafted to tell you the truth,” Blumer said. “But it all worked out. I had never talked to (Sioux Falls). I had talked to some other guys but I am glad they drafted me.”

SPECIAL REPORT: Morinville to retire from Moorhead hockey

Moorhead boys hockey coach Dave Morinville, one of Minnesota’s most decorated coaches, said Monday morning he is stepping down.

Morinville told his team at their banquet on Sunday he was going to resign.

“One of my daughters just got married,” Morinville said. “It makes you realize how fast life is going.”

His decision to step down comes weeks after Moorhead hired a new athletic director, Dean Haugo, to replace outgoing athletic director Don Hulbert, who has worked with Morinville going back to their days at Fargo North.

Morinville said another reason why he decided to walk away is because it seemed like a good time.

He just led the Spuds to their 13th Minnesota state hockey tournament appearance and had arguably one of the more memorable games of the tournament. The Spuds, led by goaltender Michael Bitzer, shocked title favorite Eagan and its four Division I commits in the first round of the tournament.

Moorhead reached the second round where it lost to state runner-up, Hill-Murray, before finishing fourth in the tournament.

As for Morinville he walks away with more than 250 career victories and in the process has coached some of the program’s elite talent. He coached former first-round pick and North Dakota star Brian Lee, who just finished his first season with the Tampa Bay Lightning following a trade from the Ottawa Senators.

Lee, who won Mr. Hockey as a senior, was a member of the four teams Morinville coached to the state tournament finals only to lose. Moorhead is a state record 0-7 in the state tournament finals having the most second place finishes in state history.

Moorhead returned to state for a second straight year after facing a turbulent year in 2009. The team was involved in a hazing investigation resulting in multiple suspensions for program not usually known for off-ice incidents.

Morinville was even suspended from the investigation and later in the year, more issues ensued with other players being suspended for other violations. Still, the Spuds reached the state tournament where they went winless for the first time in Morinville’s career at the event known as Minnesota’s crown jewel.

This year, with 12 returning seniors led by Bitzer, who won the Frank Brimsek Award for Minnesota’s best senior goaltender, the Spuds were just an overtime goal away from returning to the state title game.

“With my job, the time is right,” said Morinville, whose real profession is in the medical field. “There were times where I felt like George Jetson trying to walk the dog on the treadmill where sometimes you just felt like you had no control between my job and coaching.”

Double M Genius…

The last week has shown former Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer just how hectic next season could be.

Bitzer recorded his first-ever junior hockey win last Saturday just days after joining the Alexandra Blizzard (NAHL) for the remainder of the season. The 18-year-old Bitzer was supposed to practice with the team but an injury led to Bitzer having to fill in as the team’s second goalie for the rest of the year.

“It is kind of a unique opportunity,” said Alexandria coach Doc Del Castillo. “One of our goaltenders did get hurt and we felt fortunate Michael signed with us.”

Bitzer signed a tender to play with the Blizzard a few weeks into the Minnesota high school hockey season.

At the time, it was up in the air how Bitzer would perform this season but he answered what, if any, questions anyone had about what he could do.

Bitzer went 22-8 with a .933 save percentage and seven shutouts leading Moorhead to a fourth-place finish at the Minnesota state hockey tournament, a year after the team went winless at the tournament for the first time in coach Dave Morinville’s tenure.

His state tournament performance added to what was a busy week for Bitzer who was named to the Class 2A all-tournament team, won the Herb Brooks Award for a Class 2A player and won the Frank Brimsek Award for Minnesota’s best senior goaltender.

Days later, he was also named an Associated Press first-team selection.

“For a guy like Michael, we are happy for him,” Del Castillo said.

Bitzer’s success came with a bit of a price.

Joining Alexandria meant he’d have to give up finishing the school year with his friends and he could no longer play baseball, a sport he’s admitted to loving deeply.

It also meant Bitzer would be living away from home for the first time in his life even if Alexandria is only 100 or so miles down the road.

Del Castillo said Bitzer will continue to get his education and will graduate with a degree from Moorhead.

“We’re conscious of what he’s giving up,” he said of Bitzer. “It is not the easiest thing in the world.”

Bitzer did get a quick trip back to the area as Alexandria drove through the weekend en route to Bismarck. Bitzer made 30 saves in his team’s 5-1 win over the Bobcats just a week after his high school career ended.

Del Castillo said Bitzer will be used in a No. 2 role but will get playing time over the next four to six weeks during the regular season.

Bitzer’s NAHL stint could further serve as a reminder to both college and USHL scouts what he can bring to a team.

The last three weeks have helped Bitzer boost his stock for the USHL Entry Draft. The USHL is seen as the primary pipeline to Division I colleges. Fargo Force chief scout Jesse Davis said last week the team was taking a look at Bitzer.

Del Castillo, a former college head coach, said he understands how Bitzer’s future either in the NAHL or the USHL hangs in the balance.

“Our job in the junior system whether it is here or in the USHL is for all players to get a opportunity to play college hockey,” Del Castillo said. “Regardless of if he ends up here next year or doesn’t, we are extremely happy with how he played and what he did for his team and his community at the state tournament. It validates what we think we have coming in.”